Saturday, December 09, 2006

Christmas, Holidays & Commerce

by Tibor R. Machan

There has been much fuss lately about some people referring to Christmas as "the Holidays" and it is a bit strange. After all, "holiday" has the term "holy" in it, so those using it may be said to acknowledge the holiness of these days, something one would not expect from heathens, atheists, or agnostics. For the latter nothing much qualifies as holy since that term signifies something otherworldly, supernatural.

But perhaps the insistence on using "Christmas" has a somewhat insidious, religiously intolerant source. It may be the effort of some Christians to lock up the holidays for themselves alone, a kind of imperialism we have been witnessing the last several years from people who are willing to go the great lengths of brutality and violence to lock up the entire world for their own religion. Christians, however, were supposed to have been guided by the philosophy of Jesus, who hadn't adopted the aggressive stance of Islam's prophet, Mohammed, so it is entirely unbecoming of Christians to lord their religion over others. Especially in America, which has for over two centuries been a country that has welcomed members of all kinds of faiths.

Despite the insistence of some, America wasn't established as a Christian country—its legal system does not invoke any religion in some official sense in which, say, even England does (being officially Anglican). As to the argument about the American founders, two recent books make it abundantly clear that among them they had no agreed-upon common religious allegiance other than belief in God. But belief in God is common among Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and many other faiths. So at most America can be regarded as a religious country, which using the term "holiday" by no stretch of the imagination disputes!

There is another bit of controversy, though, surrounding the holidays, namely, whether all the commercial activity during them somehow serves to demean them. One thing in favor of this idea is that Christmas ought to be a time when we are more concerned with spiritual than with earthly matters. So all the focus on gifts and such would appear to reject this notion.

Yet, especially for Christians, earth is just as important as will be the world beyond, assuming such exists, which, of course, Christianity does assume. Yet according to Christianity the earth is a creation of God and Jesus himself became a human being for a while, thus honoring the earthliness of the rest of us who will live here for a good bit before heading elsewhere. And while here on earth, we are also supposed to be generous, kind, charitable, and friendly, all of which involves, at least to some extent, looking out for our fellows' earthly needs, wants and desires.

It is a large measure of our goodness, according to Christian ethics, that we act accordingly and Christmas is especially suited for it, when we are supposed to think of what our relatives, friends and other associates might like from us. Being remembered, for example, via cards, invitations to parties, gifts and so forth is certainly part of the thoughtfulness we ought to exhibit this time of the year and going about looking for a finding gifts is certainly a part of what such consideration involves.

No doubt, one can overdo everything, including focusing so much on buying things for those we care for, although mostly people tend to be involved in finding just the right thing, which is what all the running around is about. (As a father of three grown children, it is becoming more and more difficult to tell just exactly what would make them most pleased, so I need to invest some time in shopping!)

The commerce that's done during the holidays is, in fact, all to the good—it usually brings joy to those receiving gifts, to those finding just the right gift to give, and to whose producing and selling what will become gifts so they, in turn, can go out and do all this as well. I see nothing but a win-win situation here, all around, so the complaints really have no basis so far as I can see.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Values and America

Tibor R. Machan

A theme that comes up often in commentaries about contemporary American culture is the absence of firmly grounded and widely embraced basic values among the people. While Americans have a coherent and stable enough legal tradition—albeit in the process of gradual erosion now and always a bit flawed—they seem to lack a basic ethics by which their lives might be guided, given some in depth meaning. It is for this reason, it is often said, that people require religion in their lives, whether it be Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Hinduism.

And there is little doubt that human beings are just the kind of living creatures who cannot live without basic moral values. Even those who are totally skeptical about this do not manage to do without morals—they implicit embrace some ethical precepts, such as integrity or consistency or justice. For example, no skeptic accepts having his or her views distorted. No a-moralist believes it makes no difference how he or she is treated by critics. Total nihilism about values is impossible unless one is some kind of sociopath, seriously mentally deranged.

Why do we need values? Because we, humans, are just the sort of living beings that lack instincts. We are born with the instinct to suckle and that is about it—the rest is a matter of learning. And it isn't only the kind of learning that most higher animals need, namely, being trained in some skills. It is learning on one's own, to figure out ideas, to form principles about life and its innumerable facets. That is what all the fuss is about when we talk about the ethics of merchants, lawyers, doctors, politicians, parents, etc. And while some of this has become submerged in the discipline of psychology—so that for example such chintzy public forums as the Oprah show and The View will rarely talk about ethics and focus, instead, on psychological problems—it is still quite inescapable. Consider that however much we try to explain away ethical matters, even our psychologists are subject to moral criticism when they abuse their patients, for example.

So it seems clear enough that human beings cannot live by law alone. The law itself is open to be judged as ethical or unethical—just think how we treated the laws of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or South Africa. The same is true about the United States of America—its laws are open to moral scrutiny. We need, therefore, more than just laws for a coherent, civilized, and decent society.

But America is a highly pluralistic country—millions of people live here from extremely diverse cultures, traditions, religions, ethnic groups and the like. It seems, therefore, that just relying on these as sources of the common bond of ethics will not help. Instead, as elsewhere in the world, such sources often pit people against one another. Christians versus Jews or Moslems, Moslems against Infidels, agnostics against theists, atheists against agnostics, etc., etc.—there is no end of the varieties of conflict that can arise if we depend on these sources for moral guidance. Why? Because they lack a common base. They draw their principles of human behavior from diverse belief systems which are, themselves, not grounded in some common and accessible reality. When we depend upon the teachings of our culture we can be reasonably sure that some connection to reality must have infused what we believe. But a good deal of it is myth and fiction, made up by the human imagination and showing about as much diversity as that faculty can produce.

So what can Americans hope for in this matter of some set of common values? There is, first of all, no guarantee that we will come together on any possible answer as we search for a common ethics. That is because human beings are quite free to ignore even the best answers to questions they pose, say if they find it unpleasant, disturbing, scary, inconvenient or whatnot. But some answers probably offer a better chance at consensus than do others.

In ancient Greece it was Socrates, the first major Western philosopher, who proposed an answer to this question of how to come by an ethics that we can all agree on, even if we do not choose to. He proposed that reason must be employed to study human nature and when we learn what human nature is, we will also learn how to live right, how to live virtuously, justly. Because human nature is something we can all study. It is there before us every second of every minute of every hour of our lives. We have ample opportunity to examine what it is to be a human being. And this will give us a strong clue as to how to live a human life properly, ethically.

And the most important thing about human beings is that they are living creatures who must use their minds to navigate their lives. It is human intelligence, the activity of figuring things out and living accordingly, that seems to be the best guide to living well. As Socrates put it, "The unexamined life is not worth living." But only nature and, for our purposes, human nature, is available for common study and ultimate consensus.

In a diverse society such as America the people cannot hope to reach peace, harmony, and justice by finding principles from diverse traditions. That always runs the serious risk of conflict, since we interact among one another so frequently and pervasively. What we need to learn is to use, trust and be guided by our common reasoning capacity. There is a common world to be studied and our reasoning capacity is the best tool with which to study it. The results may get us what all else has failed to, namely, a set of ethical guidelines that will help us to come to agree on solutions to our problems.

There is no utopia in trusting reason. But as novelist Scott Turow put it in his best selling book, The Burden of Proof, "In human affairs, reason would never fully triumph; but there was no better cause to champion."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Virtue of Liberty

by Tibor R. Machan

When men and women are free to make mistakes or act from ignorance, they are also free to correct themselves promptly. This is one reason why involving government in such policies as banning trans fats or mandating the use of helmets by bicycle riders is a bad idea. The trans fats policy was just cast into stone in New York City—as of the summer of 2008, no eating establishment may cook with the stuff. And the ban on going without a helmet while riding bikes on public roads is nearly ubiquitous now in America and quite a few other countries.

The bureaucrats and politicians who run the nanny state are, of course, convinced that they are our saviors, even as many of the regulatory agencies are captured by the industries being regulated and serve, in consequence, to promote industry interests. But never mind that part of the problem. Another is that often the policy deemed to be so helpful—such as forcing us to wear seat belts or to use helmets—turns out to have very bad unintended consequences.

A traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, in the UK, Dr. Ian Walker, has conducted research on the impact of the bike helmet ban and found that "motorists passed, on average, three inches closer when he was wearing his helmet [during his experiments] than otherwise." As the English weekly THE WEEK reported in its September 23, 2006, issue, Dr. Walker "also found [vehicles] gave him more room when we wore a wig (to resemble a woman), and when he kept close to the kerb (undermining the normal advice that cyclists should drive in the middle of the road)." As Dr. Walker noted, "By leaving cyclists less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgments."

Of course, people who research these matters can make mistakes whether they work with, or independently of, the government. However, once their advice is cast into law, abolishing the law is generally very difficult. Just ask yourself how often you hear about such laws being revoked? The most widely known example in the USA is prohibition and even that hasn't been completely overturned—some states still have various remnants of the ban that became a constitutional law back in 1920 and then was repealed in 1933. Although the ban of trans fats is for now confined to New York City, at least as far as I have been able to determine, the ban on going without helmets is much more widespread and there are numerous initiatives by politicians and bureaucrats to spread the other ban as well.

One need not dispute the wisdom of the advice to stop using trans fats or to use bike helmets, even if it is true that these measures may in time prove to be counterproductive. We are not required to be omniscient in order to take actions, to make policies. Human beings often need to act without perfect knowledge which is, in fact, an impossible ideal. Knowledge is always contextual, based on the currently available information and research. Demanding that governments be omniscient is also quite silly.

What is not silly, however, is to demand that government stay away from enacting laws about matters of safety and prudence since laws are usually left in place to kingdom come! Somehow there is a far greater proclivity to make than to repeals laws—Dr. Walker might give that topic a bit of study! Arguably, if there were no legal ban on bike helmets, the mistaken idea that they are a great help to bikers, that they are safer overall then going without them, at least in areas where there is a lot of vehicular traffic, adjustments could be made rapidly, with impunity. But given that there are all these legal bans on going without bike helmets, that there are bureaucracies that have a stake in continuing the bans, that jobs would be lost if the bans were discontinued, etc., it is very likely that the mistake will remain in force and who knows how many bikers will sustain serious injuries from doing what the law requires, namely, wearing protective helmets as they use the roads.
How to Learn English

by Tibor R. Machan

Yes, if you came to the US as an immigrant, to live your life here, it's quite likely that you could get by without learning English. Even back when I first landed here, in 1956, there were regions of America where people only spoke Hungarian. (I recall shops in Cleveland's Buckeye District with signs saying, "We also speak English!")

But all in all it's best to become proficient in English if one is going to live and work in the United States of America. But it isn't easy. Often people who come here live in households where the default language is the one spoken where they hail from. Hungarian, Polish, or Mexican immigrants will likely continue to speak their native tongue just because it is simpler—there's so much else to worry about that if one can get away without spending time on learning English, it looks advantageous ... for awhile! In time, however, not learning English turns into a big liability.

This is especially true for children who lack proficiency and thus undermine their chances in schools, colleges, and the work place. A friend of mine's five year old son, born in China but living in the States since he was 3, simply will not even try to speak English, apparently because his mother and other relatives and friends lack the fortitude to insist on speaking English with him. So he is doing very badly in his elementary school and his mother is even thinking of sending him back to his aunt in China.

Not that one swallow makes springtime, so my example may be moot as far as many other immigrants are concerned. Still, I have a few suggestions to those who come here and do wish to learn English even though they are surrounded by folks who don't much support this idea. When I arrived, I was quite old, 17 and a half, and although I already spoke the language a bit, having gone to an American high school in Germany for a few months so as to get a head start, I was very far from being fluent, which I did, eventually, become—so much so that few people detect even a trace of an accent now when I speak English. And I tried for this quite deliberately.


For one, I learned a lot of American songs—my very first one was "Mr. Sandman." I listened and tried to imitate such singers as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and a host of others. I learned a bunch of American songs, like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," and many, many more, and sang them whenever I could, whenever I wouldn't drive others up the wall with my inept but educational crooning.

Of course, that is just the start. Going to the movies is another good way to acclimate oneself to a new language. Reading books, magazines, newspapers, or whatever else is at hand also helps, certainly with one's vocabulary and grammar. Indeed, I had very little formal instruction and only practiced the irregular verbs, mostly on my own initiative since learning them involves a lot of memorization. But use was my best instructor.

After living with a bunch of emigre Hungarians for about a year, I realized that that was an impediment. Since I had run away from my home anyway, I decided to leave Cleveland for someplace where no Hungarians could be found: New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. This was a great move for me since there I had no one to talk with unless I become pretty good with English. Being someone who likes to talk, to chat with people, to discuss ideas and so forth, being away from Hungarians made a big contribution to my becoming more and more proficient in English. It didn't hurt, either, that I joined the US Air Force where once again Hungarians were very scarce and where I simply had to speak English if I was to speak at all.

Of course, some people are more adapt at learning a new language than others, but I would surmise from my own and some other people's experiences that the old German saying, "Ubung, ubung macht den Meister"—"Practice, Practice makes the Master"—is true and if one wants to prepare for a productive, successful life in a new country, one ought to go to work on learning the language in ways similar to those that stood me in good stead.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Perils of State Soft Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

Jim Holt discusses the recent debate about soft paternalism, in his essay in this Sunday's, New York Times Magazine. His “The New, Soft Paternalism” is a fair and pretty thorough account of the debate about whether people have multiple selves of which some may be wiser than others and it does a decent job of considering whether the wiser selves we have ought to get government support, as when states limit gambling or other easily abused activities by their citizens. Holt comes out in favor of the government’s lending a hand to our wiser selves in the end. Here is how he put his conclusion:

“But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster [a member of the analytical Marxist school, by the way]) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.”

A couple of preliminaries. Invoking David Hume’s idea of the totally—indeed, impossibly—fragmented human self is a non-starter here. For Hume the idea was to show that is no self but he advance the notion merely as a reductio absurdum argument against radical empiricism, to show that simply relying on our senses gets us nowhere in trying to understand anything, including ourselves. Of course we have different ideas and desires, with some of us remaining intact over time while others waffling about with no integrity at all. Yet even the worst of us, with the most discombobulated personalities and unhinged character, can have some good moments during which we try to set about straightening our who we will be henceforth--just think of all the New Year's resolutions here. And, yes, a bit of push from peers and institutions may help when such folks are ready to lapse once again.

Now it might be tempting to do what Jim Holt, on the advice of Jon Elster, is proposing, get the state involved here. State soft-paternalism has its greatest appeal not because of its successes and because good theory supports it, quite the contrary. It appeals because of the powerful governmental habit that has been powerfully cultivated in the human race from time immemorial. This is a bit akin to the root idea behind paternalism—"parents know best." And that’s right for most kids, of course; for adults, however, it is a disabling, inept approach to dealing with life and gives dangerous powers to governments.

The governments of most societies have, of course, sold themselves to the people as their parents—or uncles or nannies—who have nothing but the best interest of their children, the people, in mind. Kings notoriously justified themselves along these lines, as have dictators. What differentiates democratic governments is merely the fact that they work by a process of decisions-by-committee and there are numerous competing committees vying to dominate until in the end a decision is reached that supposedly has had the benefit of extensive discussion. Of course, the decision will be coercively imposed but, presumably, wiser then many private decisions would be.

Now this is the kind of view that began to be questioned with the writings of Baruch Spinoza. Thomas Hobbes, writing just a bit before Spinoza, made the mistake of trusting the democratically selected absolute monarch, arguing, like Holt and Elster, that people want themselves to be ruled and a king or government is just who should do the ruling. But as Spinoza began to suggest and, later, classical liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and a host of others began to warn us, governments aren’t made up of angels but people. People with the crucial added attribute that makes it easy to yield to bad temptations, namely, power over other people.

In the 20th century Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock finally put the idea into a fully developed theory called "Public Choice" which argued that politicians and bureaucrats will routinely pursue their own agendas, not those assigned to them by the people via the democratic process. Now this pretty much means that entrusting government to engage in benign soft paternalism is futile.

Yes, some people could benefit from this if it could be counted upon—although that alone doesn’t make it good public policy either—but counting upon government to administer soft paternalism without corruption, without abuse, is the big mistake embraced by the likes of Jim Holt, Jon Elster, and, sadly, millions of others across the globe.